Civil rights isn’t just about race

Fred Maahs, Chair of the Board of the American Association of People with Disabilities

Fred Maahs, Chair of the Board of the American Association of People with Disabilities*

It was great to see that all kinds of people were represented in the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.

Fred Maahs, chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities, spoke eloquently on behalf of the Americans he represents.

Here, republished by permission of AAPD, are his remarks from Wednesday, August 28:

I am honored and humbled to be here with all of you today.  My name is Fred Maahs and I am a proud American with a disability.

Thirty-three years ago, just a few days before starting college, I dove from a boat and hit a sand bar in a foot of water. I broke my neck and was paralyzed from the chest down. In that instant, my life and the lives of my family changed forever.

I spent seven months in the hospital undergoing intense physical therapy, learning how to be independent in a wheelchair. But when I left the hospital to begin my new life, college remained out of reach. The campus was not accessible.I thought that the doors to a fulfilling life had slammed shut.

It was 10 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was unable to access most public buildings. I was banned from most public swimming pools. I was told there were no jobs for people like me. Heck, I couldn’t even get on a bus.

It was rare to see a person like me out in the community. We were referred to as “shut ins.”

Fortunately, Widener University in Delaware was welcoming. I helped adapt the campus to make it more accessible and I was the first chair user to attend and graduate.

I found employment and worked my way through college. My first job was in a two-story building with no elevator–and yes–my office was on the second floor.  So, every day I was carried, chair and all, up the stairs to get to work.

In the years since my accident, I have dedicated myself to expanding equal opportunity for all Americans.

Today, I do this as Chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities, the nation’s largest disability rights organization. AAPD for short.

I also do this in my role as Vice President of the Comcast Foundation.  I am proud of our work at Comcast, where diversity has always been an important part of our culture.

Today Comcast and NBC Universal help provide equal access to all Americans by helping low -income families conquer the digital divide through our Internet Essentials program. We also ensure our products are accessible to everyone – from historic closed captioning to new innovations like voice activated remote control.

At AAPD, we work to open the doors of freedom for Americans with disabilities, and we need your help to pass the Disability Treaty. The Treaty will expand the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act across the globe, level the playing field for U.S. businesses working abroad, and increase access for U.S. citizens traveling overseas.

Help us make a difference –If you have a smart phone take it out and tweet #IsupportCRPD.  #IsupportCRPD.

We will never know how many, but I can say with absolute certainty there were people who wanted to join the March on Washington 50 years ago, but couldn’t because participating was either too difficult or simply impossible for people like me. There was just no access.

Looking back, it is fair to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the father of our movement as well. Dr. King had a dream. He had a dream about equality and dignity for all people.

Yet for millions of people with disabilities, this dream remains out of reach. 8 in 10 of us don’t have jobs. Most will never know what it means to work even if we are ready, willing, and qualified.

It remains legal to pay people with disabilities far less than minimum wage in the United States. Today, I share Dr. King’s dream. I dream of a world that does not hold anyone back.

People with disabilities represent all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and genders. We represent nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. We have seen a lot of progress, but, like all civil rights movements, we have much more to do.

I call on everyone here today to continue to stand up for and defend the rights of people with disabilities. Americans are guaranteed certain inalienable rights and the right to pursue our dreams. Our duty as citizens is to help one another achieve those dreams.

Please go to and see what we can do together when we dream together.

*Photo courtesy American Association of People with Disabilities

Why change is so hard

My mom and I had an experience last week that reminded me why it’s so hard to bring Wheelchair-Ramp-Sign-33964037about change.

The day started out simply enough. Mom needed an MRI, per doctor’s orders, so we went to the imaging office for the test.

Mom can walk with the aid of a walker for a few yards, but mostly she’s in a wheelchair. She can’t negotiate steps or curbs, so when we’re out, I wheel her around in a portable wheelchair I keep in the trunk of my car.

A medical building with no wheelchair access

When we arrived at the MRI clinic, I discovered there was no ramp leading to the front door. We walked around to the back of the building and there was no ramp there, either.

So I left mom in the parking lot, hoping she wouldn’t get hit by a car, and went inside to ask how to get her in the door. We had to walk down a bumpy sidewalk, up a steep driveway and into the parking lot of the next building to reach a ramp that would let us into the right office.

By the time we arrived, I was furious. What kind of medical building has no handicap access? Don’t they know the Americans With Disabilities Act requires such access for public buildings?

The receptionist in the imaging office said they had gotten other complaints about inaccessibility and she gave me the name and phone number of their landlord. There was no manager on site to complain to.

Got a complaint? Get ready for red tape

The next day, I called the ADA coordinator for the city of Austin and she informed me she could only handle complaints about city-owned buildings.  She directed me to the city’s Equal Employment & Fair Housing Office, which investigates complaints under the Public Accommodations Ordinance. This ordinance prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

The head of that office, whom I reached after multiple phone calls, said I would have to come in and file a complaint in person on behalf of mom. I would need to show that I have power of attorney for her and that my complaint would have to be notarized. He also said they don’t get many complaints like this. I wonder why.

I suppose the city has reasons for making people jump through so many hoops, but it’s not clear to me what those reasons are.

Who has time?

All I know is I have my hands full earning a living and helping my aging mother. I don’t have time to go through the maze of paperwork the city requires to look into something as basic and obvious as wheelchair access to a medical building.

I did call the landlord and the manager of the imaging company and lodged telephone complaints. But I can tell that seeing this process through will take more time and energy than I have. And besides, we’ll probably never go to the building again — I hope.

Like I said, now I know why it’s so hard to bring change, even when it’s badly needed. I just feel bad for the next person in a wheelchair who tries to get into that same building.

Baby boomers beware

Disabled-Paper-Figure-5264557Some people may wonder why I blog about disability issues. The simple and most direct reason is that I once had an uncle with a profound intellectual disability. He had such a powerful healing effect on me that I wrote a book about him called My Father’s Eyes, due out later this year.

There are other reasons that I focus on this issue. As I’ve researched and studied the world that people with disabilities live in, I’ve become more and more concerned about their welfare.

And I’ve learned that there are an awful lot of folks who have some kind of physical or mental limitation. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 56.7 million Americans have a disability of some sort. That’s almost 20 percent of our population. That’s a lot of people.

Expand your definition of disability

When the Census Bureau puts out numbers like these, they are counting more than those who live their lives in wheelchairs or in institutions. They’re counting people who have visual and hearing impairments, intellectual and mental disabilities, and folks who use a cane or a walker and those who have difficulty dressing, managing their money and other activities.

Here’s my point. There are people with disabilities all around us. If we stop to think about what disability really means, then we realize that there are lots of people in our immediate vicinity who are counted as disabled by the Census Bureau.

There’s my friend with a mental illness. There’s my mother, who uses a walker and needs help pulling her medications together. There’s my yoga instructor, who has severe scoliosis but still manages to teach classes. There’s the 102-year-old lady at church who needs a hearing aid to hear the sermon.

We may all face disability

I would say that 20 percent of the population means disabilities are ubiquitous in our society. Yet, on the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we still have a long way to go before recognizing the impact of these numbers and addressing the needs of these folks.

Less than half of them of working age have jobs. About a third live in poverty. Many of them receive one or more kinds of government assistance, including access to health care, housing and social services. In 2008, the federal government spent $357 billion on programs and services for working age people with disabilities.

As the Census Bureau points out, the numbers are growing as the Baby Boom generation ages.

So here’s my final point. Not only does each of us probably know more than one person with a disability, odds are that we may join their ranks sometime in the future.

It behooves all of us to care about this population and to make sure their needs are met and that they have a chance to live healthy, productive lives.

It must be nice…

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

Greg Abbott

…to have the benefit of a hefty bank account like that of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.  That way, you can promote tort reform and fight against the Americans With Disabilities Act and not worry about the consequences for folks who don’t have equal power and wealth.

For the record, Greg Abbott has been paralyzed since 1984, when a tree fell on him while he was jogging. He won a multi-million dollar settlement for his injuries and gets six figures in annuity payments every year. Some years, he gets additional six-figure lump sum payments. This year, he will get an extra $400,000.

Understandably, Abbott, who is running for Texas governor, says he would gladly give all the money back if he could walk. Who could blame him?

What’s good for the goose apparently isn’t good for the gander

But incomprehensibly, he has spent the past 10 years as attorney general fighting laws that protect people with disabilities. He’s a major advocate for tort reform, which restricts the amount of settlement money injured people can get can get in lawsuits.

And he’s vigorously opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans discrimination against people who have physical or mental limitations. Abbott says the State of Texas has sovereign immunity from lawsuits seeking to enforce the law.  He doesn’t claim the same protections for private businesses or city or county governments.

The attorney general says he personally supports the ADA, but in fighting it, he’s just doing his job.

It’s all very troubling, especially since Abbott wants to take this hypocritical mindset into the Governor’s Mansion.

I just have to wonder when people are going to have enough of office holders like this, who appear to have no conscience or any sense of decency. Ambition trumps all in politics; the poor, helpless and disabled be damned.